Breaking stride with many of his jazz contemporaries, Shelly Manne always had an ear attuned toward popular entertainment. In the 1950s, Broadway musicals, film scores and television shows were the fodder of the dayand the drummer regularly mined these sources for material. The Contemporary label was ready and willing to release the results of these jazz-commercial music hybrids. Just reference the clutch of Manne-led dates that yielded albums such as My Fair Lady, Peter Gunn and the recently reissued Checkmate. The former session marked the first meeting of trio dubbed The Friends with Previn, an in-demand Hollywood composer, and Vinnegar, a first-string walking bassist, rounding out the ranks.
For their sophomore musical effort The Friends chose the Mercer and Paul musical Li’l Abner, based loosely on the Al Capp comic strip of the same name. The album’s cover revels in the classic kitsch of the period, picturing Manne in Abneresque overalls and ill-fitting Izod shirt, awkwardly lugging his drums and being chased by an especially buxom Daisy Mae. The musical itself updated the simple story of bumpkin Abner and the other residents of Dogpatch, USA with ominous Atomic Age overtones. Manne affects a similar modernistic touch on the trite at times songbook.
Funky syncopations infuse the opener “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” as Previn builds with near gospel-like block chords. Manne’s whispering brushes are a blur and Vinnegar speed walks right down the center creating a solid harmonic anchor. Forwarding the rustic feel further, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” builds from a ballad tempo on the sparse cymbal play from of the leader. Conversely, the trio tackles “If I Had My Druthers” at a sprinter’s pace, lighting a fire from crackling rhythmic tinder. Manne’s brushes are again a wonder, but it’s really Vinnegar’s chance to show how fast his fingers can race across the strings. The bassist’s throbbing, sparsely voiced notes on the mellow “Unnecessary Town” contrast beautifully with his earlier enthusiasm. Previn turns to delicate celeste after a stately piano prelude, and it’s a move that adds music box color to the trio sound.
Rolling funk returns for the robust “Matrimonial Stomp” with Previn leaping from the dark to light poles of his keyboard and in the process summoning a startling range of emotional hues. “Oh, Happy Day” offers the biggest surprise of the date as Manne and the pianist suddenly shift gears from chordal to free improvisation. Jockeying through the brisk theme advanced by the drummer’s Latin beat, the trio suddenly disperses and its sticks and ivories in a darkly-tinged matching of wits that sounds far more like modern-day Jarrett and DeJohnette than something from an obscure '50s musical soundtrack. Beat and theme return abruptly, and it’s as if the fleeting leap forward into the future was only a figment of the imagination. Tipping their hats in a farewell to Dogpatch, the Friends hit the trail out of town on the laidback lope of “Past My Prime.”
Manne had an uncanny knack for wedding the modern to the popular and making it pleasing to the palate, in a manner akin to Sonny Rollins. His Contemporary albums are littered with these kinds of experiments and this one is no exception. Li’l Abner the musical may not have performed well at the box office, but in Manne’s capable hands its credentials as a vehicle for jazz improvisation are convincingly proven.
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